Archive for October, 2015

Thoughts on finishing my first marathon

Well, to say I was desperately under-prepared is to put it mildly. I hadn’t trained properly due to two hospital stays in the five weeks leading up to it. This meant that at a best guess, I have probably run about four times in the past month. Not what you’d call ‘training runs’ either, between nine and thirteen miles each time. This may initially sound like a lot but when you consider that a marathon requires you to run thirteen miles twice, it adds up to a rather forlorn picture.

There I was this morning, at Beachy Head, feeling pretty chilled cause I had no illusions that I was going to do well. I was simply interested to see what my little legs would do, at what point they would give out and send me shame-faced, back to get my bag, having dropped out from sheer despair. I had downloaded an array of audiobooks so that I would have anything my brain could want to keep me going. I was wearing a completely inadequate bra for running in because I had forgotten to pack a sports one. Everyone around me had Camelpaks and belt things which looked like they should have guns in but actually had bottles of water and snack bars and gels. They were fiddling with GPS watches and Ipods and advising each other which hills to walk and which to run and talking about how they wanted to aim for ‘sub four hours’. In short, everyone looked prepared and raring to go. In comparison I had a raincoat tied around my waist, my ‘barefoot’ shoes on and nothing in my hands. Nothing. I wasn’t even wearing a watch. I was amused at my own audacity at even having arrived at the start line.

Before too long, we were counted down and off we went. The first thing that happened was the steepest hill I’ve maybe ever climbed in my life.

After our flurry of activity leaving the start, we all accepted the inevitable and slowed to a walk, even the speedy Gonzales’ up front. Once we had crested that hill, I expected we’d be able to get running but the incline continued steadily and I was determined not to go until it evened out or I would end up using all my energy in the first mile.

Finally we were able to pick up speed and the sight-seeing began. It really is a beautiful part of the world and we were running on the South Downs for the majority of the route. When I reached the 4 mile marker and had some water, I was genuinely surprised that I was making ok time. Considering the large amount of walking that I had done, I expected it to be the afternoon already.

The path leading away from the water station was steep and rocky so again we filed up the hillside at walking pace. The stony pathways were starting to bug me as, with my minimalist shoes, I felt every annoyingly spiky stone, stabbing the soles of my feet. I had it easy, however, as I found a real barefooter at this stage.

“O god, these stones must be so annoying for you!”

“Yeh, I didn’t realise it would be this stony.”

“Me neither,” I said, then revealed conspiratorially, “I didn’t read up about the route or anything. I’m so unprepared.”

I don’t imagine I needed to tell him this, given my general look of having brought nothing and prepared nothing.

When I reached the 8.8 mile marker I was again surprised that it was not nightfall yet and that I seemed to be making alright time. Most surprisingly, however, is that I was genuinely enjoying the views and being outside surrounded by such beauty. I kept looking around, grinning and stopping to take photos.

I was able to appreciate things external to myself. I had expected to have withdrawn into my head by this point and be fighting a losing battle to persuade myself to keep going and that the end was getting nearer the whole time. But I didn’t need to. I felt fine. My legs felt fine. My mind felt fine. So on I went, rather pleased with myself.

At the mile 12.2 marker, we went through a little village and loads of people had come out to cheer us on and clap and say encouraging things like, “Come on 1142! Keep going, looking good! You’re doing well!” Suddenly I got all puffy-chested and picked my feet up a little more and lifted my head up and smiled at my adoring fans like I was Mo Farah. I powered on through that village, eager to show them my sporting prowess. I heard whisperings of hot cross buns up ahead and that was all I needed to speed things up even more, arriving at what felt like a million miles an hour and filling both hands with hot cross buns before heading off to chomp en route.

We passed the white horse in the distance and I photographed it to show you all but I can’t remember what the story is behind it. Anyone who knows is welcome to inform me. I just know that it’s carved into the side of the hill and it’s famous. You’ll have to really squint to see it. It’s just left of centre.

At mile 16.7, a lady said, “Oo, look at those,” about my shoes and asked me about them. I had a good old chat with her about how I feel I run better in them, how my legs felt totally fine and I felt on top of things. She said, “Yeh, you look amazing. You realise you’ve run 16 miles?!” I hadn’t and I got a bit puffy-chested again from the compliment. Only ten miles to go and I still hadn’t collapsed in a shivering wreck of nerves and broken limbs. Something was going right, strangely enough.

There were no more markers after this but somewhere before I overheard talk of 19 miles, we had two stair climbs – a fairly small one and then a huge one. I could hear people saying, “O, is this the 204 steps?” and I thought to myself, “Should have read the race info.” I had no idea there was a 204 stair climb. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be actually. Lots of people were hanging onto the railing for dear life and panting heavily but I just looked down and stepped and stepped til it was done.

Thus began, the Seven Sisters. Yes, another point at which everyone else seemed to know what was going on (“How many have we done? Three?”) while I powered down hills and crawled up hills and wondered when it would end. It was about hill six when I heard someone say, “Almost finished the Seven Sisters,” and realised, again, that I should have read the race info beforehand. At the last hill, a man passed me by in the other direction and said encouragingly that it was the last of the Seven Sisters. I stopped to chat (any excuse!) and he explained the rest of the route to me, saying it wasn’t far to the finish. He appeared again, miraculously, about ten minutes later as I approached a food station and walked with me. He said he also runs in minimalist shoes and had done the 10k that morning. I mentioned how stony paths ruined any illusions of running as you just can’t get up any speed when you are feeling every stone. He kindly offered me a banana and said encouraging things about how I’d finish the marathon, no problem. Feeling buoyed up by this, I pottered off to the food station (“O god, there are people around, I should run in case they’re watching.”) and immediately located the cake supply. Two hands full, quick drink of water, on I went.

Something happened at this stage. Because I knew I was so close to the end, only four miles or so, and was still feeling fine, I got all complacent and started to treat it like a stroll in the countryside.

I strode purposefully but feeling no great need to actually turn it into running. I was winning at life and I did not have to prove myself to anybody. Plus, it was my first ever marathon. If I got a slow time, it would make it more easily beatable at my next marathon. It was a strategic move, you see? Not laziness.

Seeing a photographer up ahead when I was a few miles from finishing, I said to the lady next to me, “Come on, we’d better run, he’s taking pictures!” Laughing as we noticed the people behind us doing the same thing, we ran and kept up the momentum for the next long slow uphill. Fortunately I was actually moving with a little speed when I saw the man from earlier clapping and shouting, “Come on, Vibrams!” (I was wearing Vibrams.)

Finally, some marshals directing us around a corner said, “Only one mile to go,” and I couldn’t believe it. Without feeling like I’d put myself through any great difficulty, I’d pottered a distance of 25.2 miles at an alright time. I checked with my mind and I was feeling pretty good, not despairing or desperate for it to be over. I checked with my legs and they were good too, no big aches or pains at all. I checked with my feet and ankles and, while they were feeling a little weary, they were by no means about to go on strike. It was all really rather surprising.

As I rounded another corner, I saw the mammoth hill we had walked up at the very beginning and the red finish line and scampered down, eager to finish. As it levelled out, I sped up, faster than I think I’ve ever run in my life, and shot like a bullet to the finish line, claps and cheers accompanying me as I overtook the other runners. I barrelled into the finish area and a waiting medal giver-outer called me back, saying that if I went off without my medal, I’d have to go all the way round again in order to get one!

It all felt quite surreal afterward. I located my bag and went to change out of my running clothes then, with a few hours until my train, I went back to the finish line to clap the other runners in. For some reason, seeing the others finish kept reminding me of my own finish and I started to feel a bit emotional, turning to make my way to the station with tears in my eyes (I always cry after running long distances, it seems).

So there you have it. A surprisingly ok marathon after nowhere near enough training, the wrong bra and not reading any of the race info.